Wednesday, July 16, 2008
A Scot's view of the US presidential election
Black or white: Choice for many Americans
Published Date: 17 July 2008
By Chris Stephen
A BLACK barber in Charleston, South Carolina, I met during the Democratic primary campaign this year said it best: He told me that for his seven-year-old son, playing a video game at the back of the shop, no amount of affirmative action programmes and special initiatives would convince him he could make it in life so much as the simple fact of seeing a black president in the White House. "That would be the sign," he told me.
This comment explains better than any number of polls and pundits the reason Obama won the black vote, and hence the primaries, by managing a difficult trick: Gaining the support of blacks without losing that of the whites.
But as the presidential election looms into view this racial balancing act poses a newer harsher threat, with a poll for the New York Times and CBS giving stark evidence that the United States is as racially divided as ever.
Blacks may back Obama by margins of more than 80 per cent, but whites go for rival John McCain by 47 per cent to 37 per cent.
Racial tension may not be simmering, but the divide remains wide, a self-imposed apartheid, with the New York Times concluding: "Few Americans have regular contact with people of other races."
When asked whether blacks or whites had a better chance of getting ahead in today's society, 64 per cent of black respondents said that whites did.
Blacks and whites cannot agree even on how bad racism is; 55 per cent of whites insist race relations are good, a view shared by only a quarter of blacks.
To realise just how big a problem Obama's colour is, consider that if he were white, he would be a shoo-in for the presidency. The Bush administration is one of the most catastrophic in US history, with the president's popularity lower than any other White House incumbent since the Second World War.
Any Democrat should be able to walk into the presidency in these circumstances. Instead Obama is grappling with a lead of four to seven points over McCain with one-third of white voters insisting that they don't know enough about Obama to decide if he is good or bad.
Phil Noble, a Democratic Party official and long-time Obama supporter, says Obama's political trajectory can be likened to a white couple agreeing their daughter can date a black, only to throw up their hands in horror when she comes home to announce they are engaged. "Democratic primaries were about inter-racial dating, but the presidential election is about inter-racial marriage," he says.
Few polls ask whites whether they are racist, the reason being that pollsters don't expect a straight answer. But towards the end of the primary season, a fifth of white voters in a couple of states admitted that they do not want a black president in the White House.
Feeding into this insecurity is a nervousness about a man who's chief virtue – his youth and dynamism – is also his chief handicap. Put simply, nobody really knows whether Obama is up to the job.
Americans are used to seeing presidents promising the world only to crumble once in office, unable to make bold choices. The two previous Democrat presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, arrived in the White House promising brave new worlds only to shrink when it came to the tough decisions.
While his rallies are rock-concert uplifting events, his failure to define what he means by his slogan "change" puts you in mind of Tony Blair and his famous "Third Way," a concept that, to this day, he has been unable to define.
To his credit, Obama is striving mightily to articulate that vision. One pledge guaranteed to please is the promise to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the rich and spread it among the middle classes.
Another has been his keynote speech this week to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People calling for a culture of victimhood to be replaced by one of "personal responsibility," neatly taking as his own the key mantra of the Republican Party.
But on other fronts some detect signs of what the Republicans call flip-flop, the tendency to change policy with the wind. Having fought a primary campaign promising to pull all troops out of Iraq, Obama now says he will "refine" the plan after talking to generals on the ground.
While on the face of it a prudent move, the suggestion has fuelled concerns that Obama is too new and inexperienced to grapple with what is the most powerful political office on the planet.
What keeps some Democrats awake at night is the thought that, while the electorate might like Obama, when push comes to shove they will go with the devil they know and vote McCain, just as British voters told pollsters they preferred Neil Kinnock in 1992 but at the voting booth decided it was best to stick with John Major.
Noble is more optimistic, saying that while whites might worry about his inexperience and his colour, they may also see him as the embodiment of the American dream: Born to a white mother and black father, he has relatives living in straw huts in Kenya, yet has also won the ultimate establishment accolade of becoming president of the Harvard Law Review.
"It's twice as hard for him because he's unusual, because he's black," says Noble. "It will take longer for a lot of (white) people to get comfortable with him, but that don't mean they won't."
And Noble has statistics on his side. Throughout the primaries, Obama's numbers consistently went up once he had visited a state – once people had got to see him up close and personal.
His lead over McCain may be narrow but, in a highly polarised country, he is ahead in all three states likely to decide the election: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Obama's other asset is his opponent's weakness: On the three subjects that voters say matter the most to them, the economy, healthcare and Iraq, McCain's policies are essentially the same as Bush's, allowing Democratic campaign commercials to trumpet that a McCain presidency means "four more years" of the same.
And his life story has convinced many that there is steel in the Obama bones. "He's had to fight for everything," says New York software developer Elizabeth Mwangi,
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